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Democracy and Religious Radicalism

OurIndonesia – John O Voll, Professor of history at Georgetown University US, has an interesting conclusion regarding the relation between Islam, democracy and terrorism He conveyed this in a discussion about ‘Democracy and terrorism in Muslim countries” at Jakarta several days ago. According to him, the relation between democracy and terrorism in the Muslim countries indicates a paradox.

On one hand, the absence of democracy leads to the emergence of terrorism, but on the other hand, the presence of democracy could deliver terrorism as well. Even though it is admitted that terrorism is not an Islamic characteristic and can be performed by anyone besides Muslims, but the assumption that democratization process could eliminate the religious radicalism such as terrorism is invalid in the Muslim countries, because the democratization process in Muslim countries does not eliminate terrorism automatically.(Kompas, 15/01/2002)

John O Voll’s thesis is based on a deep understanding of democratic developments in various Muslim countries. Therefore his conclusion’s offer important truths. The democratisation process has not eliminated terrorism automatically, and has even been used as the inspiration for the resurgence of religious radicalism. In many Muslim countries, the religious radical movements are born during the democratisation process and Indonesia might become a good example of this.

The radical religious movements in Indonesia are being born at the same time as the democratisation process is emerging. For instance, regional autonomy as the reflection of democracy, has resulted in the revival of the will to implement Islamic Sharia.

In several regions such as West Sumatera, Aceh, Makassar and Cianjur, a number of regional regulations (Perda) have been arranged for implimenting Islamic Sharia. The emergence of the radical Islam social organizations on a massive scale as the part of a social movement has also occurred in tandem with the democratisation since May 1998, although its seeds were sown long before.

How could this be explained? Democracy ought to make the social order more liquid, egalitarian and inclusive, but the facts show the contrary. Democracy in Indonesia is even congealing tribal and religious identities, religious diversity is being exploited, religious exclusivism is emerging.

Surely this is counter-intuitive to the expectations of the democratisation. This phenomenon is like the “illicit child” whose birth is unexpected and cannot be prevented. Even killing the “illicit child” would be considered as a crime. The “illicit child” of democracy in the form of religious radicalism will become a threat to democracy.

A democracy that protects freedom of speech, thought and expression cannot impede society’s aspirations whatever the form. Like it or not, democracy cannot stifle thoughts that are themselves against democratic values, because stifling them is against the meaning of democracy itself.

The mature democratic countries show that the full variety of ideologies and thoughts are protected by the state. But here is the problem, because democracy is impotent in facing religious radicalism. The democratic mechanism can only allowing radicalism to compete with other notions and ideas.

The fact that religious radicalism’s revival is often wrapped in democratic cloth is unsurprising though it is actually paradoxical to the democratic spirit. The struggle of enacting Islamic Sharia in some regions, the spirit to revive Jakarta’s Charter for instance, emerged in the name of democracy and liberty.

Democracy could even be swallowed by its own freedom such that there is possibility that a nation could even fall into new forms of authoritarianism. This obviously is very dangerous because the new authoritarianism wears a democratic cloth.

From this perspective we can explain why the development of democracy in the Muslim world is always deficient as shown in the survey performed by Freedom House, a research institution at the United State. The survey at the end of 2001 concerning the freedom score for many countries showed that freedom and democracy in the Muslim countries scores very low.

Out of the 47 Muslim majority countries, only 11 countries have governments that have been elected democratically. Meanwhile, in the 145 Non-Muslim countries, 110 of them have joined the electoral system. Freedom House’s score issued every year shows little significant change in the Muslim countries.

There is a significant questionat hand: Is there something “wrong” in the Muslim countries, so that democracy and freedom is always stagnant or non-existent? Even while democracy develops, radicalism off all sorts emerge, especially religious radicalism. Why so? There is a good explanation from Samuel P Hutington (1991) .

Beside the economic and political factors, cultural and traditional factors become the most important obstacles for the democracy’s growth in a country. Society’s culture and tradition – regarding attitude, value, trust and behaviour influence democratic development.

A society’s culture which is undemocratic, originating in cultural as well as religious understanding, blocks the spread of democratic norms in the society and does not give legitimacy to democratic institutions and their function.

At least there are two versions regarding this culture. Firstly, a restrictive version, which declares that it is only the western culture which is the appropriate context for the dissemination of democracy. Countries, which have no western culture, are not able to become democratic. This argument emerges due to the fact that modern democracy started in the west; hence since the beginning of the 19th century, the biggest democratic states are the western states.

Secondly, there is a less restrictive version which states that it’s not only specific cultures that uphold the democracy. Confucianism and Islamic culture in the East could become fields of democracy. Confucianism was considered as anti-democratic and anti-capitalist in the 1980’s, yet Confucianism has been able to support democracy and also the tremendous economic growth in East Asian society.

Similarly Catholicism as compared to Protestantism was seen as an obstacle to democracy and economic growth. But in the 1960’s and 1970’s Catholic states become democratic and achieved higher economical growth than the Protestant states.

Observing those facts then, as far as it regards religious teaching and tradition, the conditions for the emergence of democracy cannot be see as black and white, “appropriate” and “inappropriate”. Culture and tradition, trust, doctrine, assumption, behaviour and etc., all are very complex phenomenon.

Besides, the culture that later delivers tradition is not something finished, but always in transformation. Therefore, a tradition that is claimed formerly as democracy’s obstacle, in the next generation could be the opposite. Spain is a good example of this.

In the 1950’s, Spanish culture was illustrated as traditional, authoritarian, hierarchical, and very religious. But in the 1970’s those values lost their place in Spain. Therefore culture is always evolving and its most determinant factor is economic development. With this explanation obviously the factors of culture and tradition factors cannot be used as permanent arguments to justify the retarded democratic level of certain states.

The emergence of religious radicalism is caused by three factors. Firstly,disappointment toward the democratic system considered as secular, where religion has no space in the state. Religion is a private matter that cannot be interfered in, while the state is a public matter.

The democratic teaching that placed the people’s voice as the God’s voice (vox populi vox dei) is considered to be subordinate to God. Therefore, religious radicalism movements usually take the form of Islamic state struggle, theocracy or Theo-democracy in al-Maududi’s terms. Although the radical group are disappointed with the democratic system, they utilize democratic momentum to struggle for their political aspirations.

Secondly, disappointment toward the social system’s collapse is caused by the state’s powerlessness to manage society’s life religiously. In the Islamic context, this kind of religious radicalism usually take the from of Islamization of social systems by enforcing strict controls over social activities considered asmaksiat (sinful) or as violating religion. This kind of radicalism can be expressed in the form of the destruction of places destruction, prostitution, gambling etc.

Thirdly, political injustice. Religious radicalism can appear as a form of resistance toward political systems which are oppressive and unfair. In the case of a group which is incessantly oppressed and treated unfairly, its internal solidarity allows for a militancy to emerge. This kind of radicalism usually takes the form of opposition toward the government in the name of religion.

Religious radicalism emerged in Indonesia as a variation and mixture of these models considered above. In a democratic state, religious radicalism, as long as it does not result in social anarchy, should be given a space of expression. Therefore, the question of the role of the state is not about how to stifle that radicalism, but how to channel it through political institutions. If that is done, religious radicalism can still be be controlled within a democratic frame.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.